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Harford health chief calls Ebola 'frightening,' but no threat to 'general population'

While Ebola is "a frightening virus," there are plenty of other diseases Harford County should be more worried about, County Health Officer Susan Kelly says.

Harford residents should focus on getting flu shots, because "your risk of getting the flu is much higher than getting Ebola," Kelly said.

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She noted more than 48,000 people die annually from the flu.

"I was not going to talk about Ebola at all, but I think there is such a buzz on TV and in the news, it really warrants providing the community with some basic information," Kelly told the Harford County Council Tuesday night during her semi-annual report.

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While Ebola is deadly, it is difficult to catch and people most at risk are health care providers and close family or friends who are exposed to Ebola sufferers, she said, noting no suspected Ebola cases have been reported in the county or region.

"The fear is heightened by all of the media," she added. "We have to be careful to get our information from accurate sources and put Ebola in perspective."

"Ebola provides no substantial threat to the general population," Kelly said, adding Nigeria has successfully controlled its recent Ebola outbreak.

Kelly said the county health department has been patched into calls with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as local hospitals.

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About 100 county personnel met Wednesday to discuss the outbreak and the Department of Emergency Services is coordinating an Ebola planning group for handling any suspected cases of Ebola, according to spokesman Robert Thomas said.

County employees, fire and EMS personnel and members of the Harford County Public Library and Harford County Sheriff's Office were given a 90-minute overview on readiness and preventative measures regarding Ebola.

The Health Department and Upper Chesapeake Health gave the presentation, Thomas said.

The presentation was similar to the one delivered to the county council and included more details on Ebola symptoms, as well as questions to ask someone suspected of having the virus.

Steps to control Ebola include identifying the outbreak, isolating the patient, tracking down other potential patients and keeping patients in the hospital until they are not a threat, according to the presentation.

"In U.S. hospitals, any suspected case of Ebola would be treated as a potential risk until tests come back negative," according to the presentation. "This means that procedures to protect other patients and health-care workers from the patient's bodily fluids would be put into place."

Earlier this month, a spokesperson for Harford County's two hospitals said they would be prepared to deal with any possibility of the deadly Ebola virus in the county. While declining to give specifics about protocols, the spokesperson said the hospitals "constantly monitor for a variety of public health threats in our patient population."

The same week, a City of Aberdeen official said the Ebola outbreaks in Africa – and the decision to treat some United States health care workers who had contracted the disease there back in this country – had raised a concern for city workers and that more facts were needed about the disease and potential exposure.

City manager Doug Miller said Thursday he attended the countywide briefing and health officials "have a pretty good handle on what we are up against."

"We now understand the virus better," he said. "From that meeting, I have confidence that our employees are safe."

Kelly said at Tuesday's council meeting that she remembered the AIDS epidemic years ago and "the concern even in the county with AIDS and HIV, and I even remember SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and H1N1 [swine flu]," Kelly said. "Ebola is very different; it's very deadly, but it's not very easily transmissible."

"This is a learning process for everyone," she said, adding that responding to the threat is like "building a bike while you are riding it."

"Let's hope we never have to put into practice the things we are trying to do," she said. "The Ebola is really a wake-up call for everybody, I think, but particularly for me about the importance of public health in the community."

Councilman Dion Guthrie questioned Kelly on the difference in symptoms between the Ebola virus and a common cold.

She replied that people have different symptoms, but the main qualifier for someone suspected of Ebola is whether they have recently traveled to parts of Africa affected by the disease.

Kelly said the county has communicable disease nurses who question concerned patients so they can rule out the possibility of Ebola.

Council president Billy Boniface said the best thing is for people to stay informed.

"If it does become an issue in our community, I am sure the health department will stay on top of it," he said.

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